Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. He is the author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), Dragons: A Natural History (1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals (2001), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), The Menagerie of Marvels (2014), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is widely considered to be his cryptozoological magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016) - plus, very excitingly, his first two long-awaited, much-requested ShukerNature blog books (2019, 2020).

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Tuesday 31 January 2017


A colourised version of one of Sir John Tenniel's famous original illustrations of the Mock Turtle with the Gryphon and Alice, from Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, 1865 (public domain)

Written by Lewis Carroll (the pen name of a socially shy Oxford University mathematician called Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), and originally published in 1865, one of my favourite childhood novels was Alice's Adventures In Wonderland (or Alice In Wonderland, to call it by its nowadays more commonly used shortened title). As is universally known, it was based upon an impromptu story told by Carroll to family friend Dean Henry Liddell's three young daughters one summer afternoon in July 1862 while he and the Reverend Robinson Duckworth were taking them on a rowing-boat ride along the Isis river (part of the Thames) not far from their home.

Photographed by Lewis Carroll in 1860, Alice Liddell as a 7-year-old child, the child who would later inspire Alice's Adventures In Wonderland (public domain)

One of the children was Alice Liddell, aged 10 at that time, whom Carroll made the heroine of the story after she'd asked him to tell them one that featured her in it. At the end of their boat ride, Alice begged Carroll to write the story down for her so that she would always have it, and so that same evening he duly began drafting out what would become three years later one of the best-loved children's novels of all time. Moreover, it would be followed in 1871 by an equally popular Alice-starring sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (which I actually liked even more than the first novel).

Lewis Carroll, photographed in 1863, just two years before the publication of his now-immortal children's novel (public domain)

Very fond of literary nonsense, witticisms, riddles, puns, and other word play, Carroll included many such examples in both of his Alice books. And as someone who read them countless times as a child and has always derived comparable pleasure from verbal drolleries, I greatly enjoyed spotting and making sense of them.

The first picture of the Mock Turtle that I ever saw, from my much-loved Marjorie Torrey-illustrated Alice In Wonderland book that my mother Mary Shuker bought for me when I was a very small child (© Marjorie Torrey/Random House – included here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only)

However, there was one example that not only delighted me due to the fact that it concerned a seemingly fictitious creature that I'd never heard of before (even as a child, mysterious monsters and mythical beasts always fascinated me – clearly a cryptozoologist in the making!), but also had long mystified me. This was because I felt quite sure that its unusual name and even more unusual form embodied more significance than I had perceived as a child, yet I couldn't decide just what that significance might be. Appearing towards the end of the first Alice novel (or AAIW, for short, as used hereafter in this article), in tandem with an example of that very famous legendary beast the griffin (or gryphon, a more classical spelling, used by Carroll in that book), the perplexing creature in question was referred to by Carroll as a mock turtle.

An exquisite Art Nouveau-inspired portrayal of the Mock Turtle and Gryphon, by Blanche McManus, 1899 (public domain)

In Carroll's account of the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle that the Queen of Hearts had taken Alice to meet, nothing of note concerning the morphology of either of them was included by him (devoting much of his coverage instead to their reciting and performing the Lobster Quadrille, a most unusual dance). Instead, all such details were imparted to the reader entirely by way of some excellent line drawings prepared by the renowned illustrator Sir John Tenniel working in strict accordance with Carroll's very exacting instructions. Carroll had initially planned to illustrate the book himself, and did so in a preliminary, then-unpublished, handwritten version entitled Alice's Adventures Under Ground (AAUG), which he presented to Alice Liddell on 26 November 1864. However, he recognised that his artistry was not of a sufficiently high standard for publication purposes, so he engaged Tenniel to prepare the required artwork for the final, longer version that became AAIW. (This was evidently a wise decision, judging at least from Carroll's bizarre illustration of the Mock Turtle that appeared in AAUG, in which its head resembled that of a seal, and its long, slender body looked as if it were composed entirely of overlapping roof tiles!)

Lewis Carroll's decidedly odd-looking drawing of the Mock Turtle, from Alice's Adventures Under Ground (public domain)

In Tenniel's drawings, the Gryphon was depicted in typical griffin form, as a composite of eagle and lion, deftly amalgamating the beaked head, taloned forelimbs, and plumed wings of the former with the furry body, clawed hind limbs, and long tuft-tipped tail of the latter. Conversely, whereas the Mock Turtle also appeared to be a composite creature, it did not resemble anything known to me from either fable or fact. Nor had I even heard of a mock turtle before. Evidently, therefore, I reasoned, unless it were an exceedingly obscure mythical beast it must have been one of Carroll's own inventions, but what had inspired him to fashion it in the extraordinary form that he had done, and where had its very distinctive, memorable name originated? These were the two questions that puzzled me for so long (back in those now far-distant days before the information super-highway of the internet had come into being!).

Sir John Tenniel's most famous depiction of the Mock Turtle and Gryphon, 1865 (public domain)

For in Tenniel's illustrations, this remarkable creature was portrayed with the familiar body shell and scaly front flippers of a real turtle, but sported the big-eared head, hoofed hind legs, and long tufted tail of a calf. In my youthful naivety, I simply assumed that the 'mock' aspect of its name related to the fact that because of these bovine attributes it wasn't a genuine turtle, with the latter attributes merely being humorous but hardly meaningful creations by Carroll. I now know of course that had I been alive during Victorian times when AAIW was written and published, I would have been readily aware of the true derivation of this term and the attendant significance of those attributes – especially as, albeit unrealised by me back in my childhood, Carroll had actually provided the answer to one of my afore-mentioned questions in his text:

Then the Queen left off, quite out of breath, and said to Alice, "Have you seen the Mock Turtle yet?"

"No," said Alice. "I don't even know what a Mock Turtle is."

"It's the thing Mock Turtle Soup is made from," said the Queen.

"I never saw one, or heard of one," said Alice.

Neither had I, but nor had I ever heard of mock turtle soup either, so I had assumed that this too was just another Carrollian invention. Many years later, however, I finally stripped bare the mystery surrounding the 'mock' moniker, and uncovered at last the truth behind this very tantalising turtle.

A colourised version of Tenniel's second original illustration of the Mock Turtle and Gryphon with Alice, 1865 (public domain)

It turned out that mock turtle soup was actually a bona fide dish, an English soup originally created during the mid-1700s but very commonly served in Victorian times. It earned its name from the fact that it was actually a cheap substitute for genuine turtle soup, which was a very expensive delicacy that few could afford. Instead of containing turtle flesh as its primary ingredient, mock turtle soup contained calf meat (veal), taken especially from those parts of a calf that were otherwise usually discarded, i.e. the head, hooves, and tail, and which therefore cost a lot less to produce than real turtle soup.

Classic illustration by Arthur Rackham of the Mock Turtle, Gryphon, and Alice, 1907 (public domain)

Suddenly, all became clear. His fondness for humorous word games, puns, and other literary trickery had clearly inspired Carroll to dream up a character that was then playfully put forward by him when recounting his story as the (non-existent) creature from which was derived a certain very common veal-containing dish from his time whose memorable name would be familiar to his young listeners and thus make them laugh – namely, mock turtle soup. That was why the Mock Turtle had a turtle's shell and front flippers but a calf's head, hind limbs, and tail – with typically witty Carrollian absurdity, it was the visual embodiment of what mock turtle soup pretended to contain (turtle) and what it actually did contain (the calf elements listed above).

In this illustration from 1916, the Gryphon and a particularly tearful Mock Turtle perform the Lobster Quadrille for a somewhat bemused Alice (public domain)

One further feature that was a major component of the Mock Turtle was its extremely lugubrious, sobbing demeanour. When Alice asked the Gryphon why his chelonian companion was so sorrowful, the Gryphon replied very dismissively that it was "all his fancy", that he didn't actually have any sorrow. Yet because the Mock Turtle briefly mentioned that he had once been a real turtle (but without providing any clues as to why he no longer was), there has been much speculation among Carrollian scholars as to whether this was the reason for his tearful melancholia, coupled perhaps with what may have been a poverty-stricken upbringing (when recounting his history to Alice, the Mock Turtle intimated that he was poor when young, revealing that he couldn't afford to study any extra subjects at school, only the regular ones).

The Mock Turtle is no less mournful in this illustration either, by Gwynedd Hudson, 1922, but Alice looks distinctly perturbed by their terpsichorean exuberance! (public domain)

As a wildlife enthusiast from the earliest of ages, however, it occurred to me a long time ago that a more likely origin for this particular characteristic of the Mock Turtle was that real turtles, which are all exclusively marine in the strict definition of the term 'turtle' traditionally employed in British English, rid their bodies of excess salt (derived from drinking seawater) by excreting it in the form of salty tear-like exudation trickling from glands near to their eyes, so that they look very much as if they are weeping profusely. Quite apart from being a mathematician and storyteller, Carroll was also a keen amateur naturalist (and is known to have made a particular study of those animals featuring in his Alice novels to ensure that his accounts of them were accurate). Consequently, he was assuredly aware of this specific behavioural occurrence in turtles, and had cleverly incorporated it with altered meaning into the Mock Turtle's persona, transforming it from a practical osmoregulatory activity into an entirely anthropomorphic emotional outpouring instead.

The Mock Turtle managed to be doleful even when dancing, as seen here in this lantern slide image from the early 1900s (public domain)

More than 150 years have passed since the Mock Turtle was introduced to the world in AAIW, and it has been depicted by over 70 artists within the numerous illustrated editions that have been published since the original one from 1865, containing Tenniel's drawings. It has also appeared in a considerable number of films and TV adaptations, in which it has been played by the likes of Cary Grant, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Michael Hordern, Donald O'Connor, Gene Wilder, and Ringo Starr, as well as being voiced by Alan Bennett in the 1985 film Dreamchild.

The Mock Turtle in a photo-still from Alice In Wonderland (1915), a very early silent film version written and directed by W.W. Young, starring Viola Savoy as Alice, and viewable online here (public domain)

What is particularly interesting, however, is that whereas earlier portrayals generally retained its appearance as originated by Tenniel following Carroll's instructions to him, there have been various later depictions that have strayed significantly from this. Moreover, the way in which they have strayed seems to indicate that those responsible may not have realised why this character's appearance was what it was in the original book, thereby, albeit inadvertently, making a veritable mockery of the Mock Turtle.

An illustration from 1907 by W.H. Walker featuring an accurately-depicted Mock Turtle but a very predatory-looking Gryphon in worryingly close proximity to Alice! (public domain)

The reason for my suspecting this to be the case is that the Mock Turtle has sometimes been depicted not as a half-turtle half-calf composite, but merely as a normal, ordinary turtle, i.e. with not just a turtle's body shell and front flippers but also a turtle's head, hind flippers, and tail – thereby entirely missing the etymological significance and origin of this Carrollian character. After all, if the Mock Turtle is presented as being exactly the same in appearance as a genuine turtle, how can the term 'mock' be justifiably applied to it? Equally, the crucial fact that it was specifically created by Carroll as the creature from which mock turtle soup is supposedly derived is wholly concealed visually if it is depicted simply as a totally normal-looking turtle. Consequently, I can only assume that those who have produced these latter images do not know about mock turtle soup. In a different but no less bizarre vein, I have also seen the Mock Turtle portrayed with the head, trotters, and curly tail of a pig, which if anything makes even less sense than depictions of it as a genuine turtle!

An unusual but thoroughly charming illustration from 1926 by A.L. Bowley, in which not only Alice but also apparently both the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon are depicted as youngsters (public domain)

Today, the Mock Turtle's fame stretches far beyond the confines of Carroll's beloved novel, appearing in a number of works by other authors inspired by Wonderland and its many strange but memorable inhabitants. As noted earlier, it features in many movie and TV dramatisations of AAIW too, as well as in various songs, and it has even lent its name to a popular Indie rock band, The Mock Turtles, hailing from Greater Manchester, England.

Still more dancing, but no sign of Alice in this illustration from 1928 – perhaps she'd become bored of it all by now and went home! (© Copyright holder and original source of this illustration presently unknown to me – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only)

Nevertheless, at least for me there is one major disappointment associated with this memorable character – that it didn’t appear in Walt Disney's very colourful, classic animated film, Alice in Wonderland, first released in 1951. Very recently, however, I was most interested to discover that in fact, along with the Gryphon, the Mock Turtle had indeed been due to feature in it. In fact, cartoon versions of their characters had been produced, and were scheduled to appear in one scene, with the Mock Turtle even singing two specially-penned songs ('Beautiful Soup', sung to the tune of 'The Blue Danube', and 'Will You Join The Dance?', based upon the 'Lobster Quadrille' poem recited by this character in the novel'). Just before the film's completion, however, their scene and songs were axed. Happily, though, all was not entirely lost, because later on in the 1950s Disney produced an animated Wonderland-based commercial for Jell-O gelatin desserts in which the Mock Turtle and Gryphon did feature, together with Alice.

A very beautiful, colourful rendition of the Mock Turtle, Alice, and a fiery-plumed Gryphon by Harry Rountree, 1928 (© Harry Rountree, reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only)

Even so, failing to make the final cut in one of Disney's most delightful animated films would be enough, surely, to make anyone cry, let alone someone as famously weepy as the mournful Mock Turtle!

The Nursery "Alice" – a special edition of AAIW for very young children, simplified by Lewis Carroll and illustrated by Sir John Tenniel; it was published in 1890 and included both the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon on its front cover, prepared by one of Carroll's friends, E. Gertrude  Thomson (public domain)

To read a previous ShukerNature blog article concerning another of my favourite AAIW animal characters, the iconic and decidedly idiosyncratic Cheshire Cat, please click here.

One of my all-time favourite AAIW-inspired artworks, an absolutely spectacular and very original futuristic/fantasy take on the Mock Turtle, Gryphon, and Alice, by the world-renowned fantasy artist Rodney Matthews (© Rodney Matthews, included here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only)


  1. Thank you for a very entertaining article, with some great explainations!

    Oddly, although I was aware of mock turtle soup (my mother used to serve something called this, though I didn't think it had the ingredients you mention!) I was not aware of the ingredients of this soup.

    My original thoughts as a child were that mock turtle soup was not real turtle soup, so the drawing were not of a real turtle, but a mock one, which was why it looked odd.

    Now I know the truth, and very satisfying (like the soup was) it is!

    1. Thanks very much Kevin, glad you enjoyed it, and thanks also for your own recollections re mock turtle soup - very interesting! All the best, Karl

  2. Then there's the mock turtleneck shirt, a completely different kettle of fish.

  3. What an informative, deep and well-researched piece this has been. Thank you very much for this.